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‘Midnight Mass’: The best Stephen King story Stephen King never wrote

In intense Netflix series, a new priest brings miracles and oddities to town.

The miracle-making powers of Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) pack the pews in “Midnight Mass.”
Netflix

Strange things are afoot on Crockett Island.

A number of individuals are experiencing inexplicable changes that seem to occur overnight and defy medical science. At an annual festival, a man’s beloved dog suddenly dies — and it appears someone might have poisoned the poor fella. And what’s with the new priest in town who seems strangely familiar?

It’s not surprising that none other than Stephen King took to Twitter last week to sing the praises of the Netflix original limited series “Midnight Mass,” because this is a memorably dark and gory and twisted saga from horror specialist Mike Flanagan, director of films such as “Absentia” and “Gerald’s Game” (based on a novel by King) and the Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House.” Even though this is an original work from Flanagan, it feels like a high-level adaptation of a particularly haunting King novel.

In a steady, intense, labyrinthine build over the course of seven episodes, Flanagan takes us on a chilling journey dripping with biblical allegories, taking a deep and bloody dive into themes of good vs. evil and the wide expanse of gray in between; angels and demons and how it’s not so easy to distinguish between the two, and how unwavering, rigid, dogmatic faith and spirituality can result in salvation for some and eternal damnation for others.

Riley (Zach Gilford) is haunted by the memory of a girl he killed while driving drunk.
NETFLIX

You don’t have to have been raised Catholic to appreciate “Midnight Mass,” but for those of us who were, the series maintains an uncanny and pinpoint accuracy for the hymns, the prayers, the rituals, the sermons, the vestments and the very essence of a church community — in this case St. Patrick’s on Crockett Island, a remote outpost with just over 100 residents.

When the main storyline begins, Zach Gilford’s Riley Flynn, a former altar boy at the church, has just returned home after serving four years in an Illinois prison for a DUI that resulted in the death of a teenage girl, a girl who often appears to Riley in his dreams. Riley’s return coincides with the arrival of Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a charismatic young priest who tells the townsfolk their longtime pastor has taken ill and is recuperating on the mainland. Father Paul quickly wins over the church regulars with his fiery, passionate sermons — and when he presides over a miracle right there in the middle of a mass, suddenly the church pews are overflowing with virtually every resident of the island.

Ah, but other, more disturbing events are also transpiring. A violent storm hits — and Riley swears he saw the old priest walking in the pouring rain. Dozens of dead cats wash up on the beach. The town doctor (Annabeth Gish) sees tubes of blood samples literally boil and explode in the sunlight. The cinematography perfectly captures the bleakness of this dilapidated fishing town, which took a financial pummeling after an oil spill contaminated the local waters. Even when it’s not raining on Crockett Island, it always looks like a hell storm is about to engulf the entire place.

And yet … miracles are occurring as well, and we’ll say no more so as not to spoil your viewing experience. Something magical is happening here, but as the supernatural occurrences multiply, it feels like something more akin to a zombie movie than a glorious version of the Rapture.

In addition to standouts Gilford, Linklater and Gish, the terrific ensemble cast includes Rahul Kohli as the sheriff, a Muslim who is treated with suspicion by many other locals; Kate Siegel as Erin, who has returned to the island after a stint on the mainland and still has feelings for Riley and is hoping to rekindle her faith in God; Henry Thomas and Kristin Lehman as Riley’s parents, and Samantha Sloyan as Bev, who helps run the church and takes pious villainy to the next level. “Midnight Mass” isn’t an indictment of organized religion; it’s a parable about the dangers of blind faith and being careful what you wish for. Crockett Island is no place for the meek, for they will not inherit this slice of Earth.